Mike Nichols Live at the Film Society in a Two-Part Episode of The Close-Up
Carrie Fisher, Mike Nichols, and Nora Ephron at the 1999 Chaplin Award Gala. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
The late Mike Nichols is the focus of this week's episode of The Close-Up. The German-born American film and theater director, producer, actor, and comedian died last week at 83. Nichols’s career as a director spanned more than 40 years and was characterized by his immense intelligence and wit.
In celebration of his life, The Close-Up released a special two-part edition today, with full programs from two of Nichols's visits to the Film Society of Lincoln Center in the 2000s as well as excerpts from the 1999 Chaplin Award, the annual gala hosted by the Film Society, which feted Nichols that year. That evening included tributes from Meryl Streep, Harrison Ford, Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, Art Garfunkel, and Paul Simon, as well as his sometimes collaborator Elaine May. As a bonus, watch a 2011 conversation between Nichols and Jason Reitman after a screening of Carnal Knowledge (1971) below.
Part one includes an hour-long conversation between Nichols and May. Before beginning his career as a filmmaker, the two collaborated as comedy duo Nichols and May. After disbanding in 1961, they continued to work together when May wrote scripts for Nichols's The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998).
May also went on to direct, and in 2007, following a Film Comment Selects screening of her 1987 film, Ishtar, the pair reunited at the Film Society for a lively conversation about their careers and other topics including awards season, the industry, new ways of distribution, Bennett Miller's Capote, The Weinsteins, Oprah Winfrey, Steven Soderbergh, and, of course, filmmaking.
"The process of making movies is not something that can be apprehended from without," observed Nichols during the chat at the Walter Reade Theater. "An executive who works in a studio is very often a very nice and intelligent person who thinks that expressing an opinion in a meeting is a creative act because that's all he gets to do…The opinions expressed bare no relation to the work that's being done."
In another moment, Nichols gives insight about what he finds most appealing when watching a movie: "The thing I love most about movies and the most about other people's work is small things. If you think about your favorite thing about a movie or play or performance, it's always very small. You can barely tell other people about it because it's so small… With luck you can catch that wind."
Mike Nichols with Wendy Keys at the Film Society in 2004. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
In November 2004, the Film Society hosted An Evening with Mike Nichols, which included a conversation ranging from his childhood to early influences. He also talked about his roots as a stand-up comic: "I think all the best people in the theater started as comics. Wherever you look there are reformed comedians."
Remembering his childhood and his early connection with the big screen Nichols surmised: "Movies saved me in some strange way. One of the wonderful things about movies is that you never know who is going to be able to make one. They’re all part of all of us. You don’t know whats happening inside people and in their unconscious and since movies are made largely in the unconscious…"
He also reflected on The Graduate (1967), which won him an Academy Award for Best Director and how the culture of the moment interjected itself into the film's meaning: "The Graduate was about materialism. It was about a young man who was drowning in things. He was surrounded by things. He managed to save himself first through sex and then finally through madness and passion. And was saved—somewhat." Continuing, he added: "But it became a movie about the generation gap and that never occurred to him. The time sort of enters something and decided what its going to be and turns it into something."